So you’ve spent potentially thousands of pounds for a fantastic main PA speaker system that sounds amazing BUT… the sound still comes across as muddy. If this is you then the chances are that your stage noise is preventing you from using the full capacity of the sound system. It’s a fairly common problem and something that can continuously be improved upon.
There are a number of ways in which we can reduce the on stage sound. Be it moving to smaller monitors, moving to electric instruments or even moving to in ear monitors; a number of different areas can substantially reduce the amount of on-stage noise.
This common problem really came to the forefront of my mind a few weeks ago when I was actually putting a quote together for a customer at work. The quote was for a small church in Liverpool and the ‘systems specification’ had come through from the churches music team. The specification called for 2x 50W speakers for the main congregation FOH speakers however; the music team needed 3x 180W wedge speakers.
I took one look at the specification and pretty much threw it away. Under those guidelines the musicians had 5 times the amount of power on stage than the congregation had. Instead I put in 2x 200W speakers for the main congregational FOH and small 10W monitors mounted on microphone stands for the musicians.
All musicians need to be able to hear themselves and those other musicians around them. Without it musicians can be out of time, out of key or even both! However, the monitors that they use can often be pushed higher in volume than even the main PA speakers. There are a number of different ways to reduce the volume of the monitors: –
The first step with monitors is to make sure they are angled and aimed at the musicians. It seems simple but so often you see musicians with their monitors (or even their amplifiers) pointed at their knees. Pointing the monitors at the musicians ears instead of their knees will drastically increase the clarity of the monitors and may should mean that you can turn the monitors down.
The second step is to see if you can raise monitors. This may mean building small wooden structures or doing something similar. Moving the speakers closer to the ears of the musicians will drastically decrease the amount of volume that is required. The inverse square rule means that if you decrease the distance to a quarter (say 2m away to 0.5m away) then you will need half the volume and can even use smaller speakers. Yamaha do some fantastic 10W active monitors that can fit on the top of a microphone stand.
The third step is to replace the monitors. Replacing your monitors with in ear monitors can be an expensive step but it is certainly one worth taking if you can afford it. You’ll need a mixing desk with enough outputs, beltpacks for each of the band members (wired ones are cheaper and can often provide a better quality of signal for the band member) and each of the band members will need a good quality pair of earphones. IEM’s can cost anything from £30 for a basic pair of Sennheiser earphones to custom moulded earphones that START at £500.
Guitarists are notorious for cranking up their amps up to full and playing their heart out with the amplifiers blaring but their not the only culprits. Bass players love to be able to ‘feel’ their playing and even keyboard players can use amplifiers in some situations. Amps can be treated in the same way as monitors initially – pointing them and moving them closer to the musician can mean that the amplifier can be turned down to a lower volume.
Firstly, try and get rid of the amplifiers you don’t need. Keyboard players don’t necessarily need their own amplifiers. If you have good bass response from your main speaker system and the bass player has good enough monitoring or IEM’s then their amplifiers can be removed (if you can negotiate it with the bass player!). However, guitarists often rely on their amplifiers for tone so they are more difficult to omit entirely.
After removing any amplifiers that are not required, use the amplifiers that are required in more sensible locations. One of the things you’ll often experience is the musician who thinks their ears are in their ankles. They’ll sit their amplifier flat on the floor at their feet and point the speaker cone directly at their legs. Whilst a bass player needs to feel a certain amount of their sound rather than hear it, amplifiers pointed at ankles will only mean the musician needs to turn the amplifier up to hear what’s going on.
If possible, raise the amplifier up as close to ear level as possible and if you have the right stand/equipment try to point the equipment at the musicians ear rather than forward towards the congregation. Ideally this will mean pointing amplifiers sideward – away from vocal microphones as much as possible.
Finally, you may need to move amplifiers off stage to another part of the building where the amplifiers can be more insulated. This takes us nicely into…
Isolation booths are often found in the studio environment for separating different instruments out so sound doesn’t spill between the microphones quite so much. Whilst we’re not going to put out singers in their own individual sound booths, there are ways in which we can use ‘acoustic treatment’ technology to reduce the amount of on-stage noise.
Firstly – those guitar amps can be baffled using small acoustic shields or even a good thick duvet around (not on) the amplifier. If you are using a duvet, make sure that you leave plenty of room inbetween the amp and the duvet and there is plenty of ventilation. ‘ISO-cabs’ can be purchased (or even built) and will feature great sound insulation properties as well as providing adequate ventilation for the amplifier to function.
The most common form of sound isolation experienced is the drum shield or drum booth. Drum booths are absolutely fantastic and can give the sound engineer the thing they have always wanted – control over the drummer! There are a couple of tips to using a drum booth however, that you should be aware of before diving into your first drum screen: –
- You need to be able to have a full range of microphones on the drum kit if you are using a drum booth. You need to be able to mic each component individually (rather than just a kick mic and a couple of overheads) to ensure a good quality of sound.
- If you are only using a drum shield (not the full booth) make sure there are materials behind and above the drum booth that will absorb sound. Drum shields on their own will just reflect sound – not absorb it.
- Make sure the drummer has a good mix of the band – either in IEM’s or in a monitor as otherwise he will not ‘feel’ part of the band.
- If you are not using your own venue (such as a school hall) then setting up and transportation of a full drum booth can be both expensive and time consuming.
- Drums in a drum booth will sound like they are in a small drum booth – make sure you have a good reverb available to make the kick sound ‘live’
This is the final step to getting rid of unwanted sound – to replace any acoustical instruments with their electrical, un-amplified equivalents. Whilst some instruments are easy to see the benefit (piano for example) others require a bit more tact when approaching – and actually require a good amount of dialogue with your musicians. It will (of course) require a good amount of budget so probably take this option as a last resort!
Some of the following might be instruments that using electrical versions will easily work: –
– Piano, Strings (Violin, ‘cello, double bass), Bass guitar, Electric Guitars (with good amp simulator effects)
However, the often debated electronic instrument is probably the biggest culprit of unwanted stage noise – the drums. With electronic drums you get what you pay for – with some of the more expensive units sounding fairly reasonable. However, finding a drummer that is willing to play said electric drums is another matter entirely! Personally I am not a huge fan of electronic drums – they sound far too processed and not ‘live’ enough for my liking however, I have not sat down with an electronic kit and played about for hours.
You will find that the more you can minimise the noise on stage, the better your sound will be. Reducing the sound on stage will require dialogue with the musicians you are working with as there will be a significant impact to them. Like everything in this series, the process of reducing your onstage noise will take time, energy and money – however, it’s a worthwhile journey to take if you are serious about improving the quality of your sound system.